Startups survived, some thrived in COVID

Justin Crowe, founder and CEO of Parting Stone in Santa Fe, pictured in 2019. The company take human and pet remains and turns them into solidified remains. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Santa Fe-based Parting Stone’s novel technology to turn cremated ashes into beautiful, solidified remains is rapidly gaining ground in the “deathcare” industry.

The company, which launched in fall 2019, offers people a better way to connect with departed loved ones, turning ashes into smooth, polished memorial stones that can be held, shared or displayed, said Parting Stone founder and CEO Justin Crowe.

The company now partners with 340 funeral homes across the country to offer solidification services to families who plan to create remains. That’s up from about 200 funeral partners last fall.

“We do direct-to-consumer sales as well, but about 75% of our business comes from funeral homes,” Crowe told the Journal. “We’ve grown very fast in the pandemic, with our year-over-year revenue up 75%.”

The company earned $330,000 in revenue last year. It projects $1 million this year.

It closed on a $500,000 investment in May from the Arrowhead Innovation Fund at NMSU, and from local angel investors. It also secured an $800,000 loan from Finance New Mexico LLC, a subsidiary of the New Mexico Finance Authority.

Counting $500,000 it previously received from angel investors in 2019, plus Paycheck Protection Program funding and some state assistance, the company has raised about $1.9 million to date.

It will move from its current 2,500-square-foot space in Midtown Santa Fe to a new 8,000-square-foot facility on the South Side in October. And it recently hired five new production technicians for its proprietary ash-solidification technology, which in June became fully patent protected by the. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Crowe expects the workforce to grow to 24 by year-end 2021, with another 20 hires expected next year.

“Over the next four years, we’re looking at reaching 100 people,” Crowe said.

BennuBio acquires new digs and a new CEO

During the pandemic, BennuBio Inc. raised over $6 million in new funding, moved into a new high-tech facility, and hired a new CEO, setting the company up for commercial launch later this year of its super-fast cell-screening technology.

The company has developed a new flow-through cytometer, or cell meter, that can process single-cell tissue samples 100 times faster than other cytometers on

Matthew Hess, the new president and CEO of BennuBio.

the market today. Its machine, called the “Velocyt,” can also perform rapid, multi-parameter analysis of three-dimensional tissue samples, or conglomerates of cells, for more advanced medical diagnostics and drug discovery, making it the only cytometer in the world today that can do that, said the company’s new CEO, Matthew Hess.

The company has been developing the Velocyt since 2013, based on technology originally licensed from the University of New Mexico. It’s received $7 million in private equity since 2018, including a $5 million investment from local and international venture funds in March 2020, just after the pandemic hit.

It also received a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health last summer to further develop the Velocyt’s 3D screening capacity for cell clusters, or “spheroids,” which could greatly improve cancer research, diagnostics and treatment, Hess said.

BennuBio deployed its cytometers at five pilot-testing sites over the past year, including the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, and at San Diego State University’s Heart Institute.

“We got our instrument into the field to really prove its capacity at those pilot sites as we gear up for our official commercial launch in the fall,” Hess told the Journal. “We’ll start taking pre-orders for the Velocyt pretty soon.”

The company moved last fall from the WESST Enterprise Center Downtown to a 5,500-square-foot facility with lab and manufacturing space. It’s since ramped up its workforce from 15 to 21, with plans to hire at least seven more in the coming months, Hess said.

WaveFront engineers Xifeng Xiao, left, and John Dixson discuss changes that need to be made to a company device while Tom Dunlay, third from left, and COO Ron Rammage look on July 6. (Adria Malcolm/For The Journal)

WaveFront starts clinical trial, preps for market

Albuquerque-based WaveFront Dynamics Inc. raised $3 million during the pandemic, launched a clinical trial for its new eye-measurement machine, and moved into new offices in the Midtown industrial zone off I-25.

It’s now preparing for commercial launch in the fall for its medical device, which offers advanced eye measurements to customize sight correction for difficult-to-treat patients.

“We want to demonstrate our first commercially available instruments at a trade show in November,” WaveFront founder and CEO Dan Neal told the Journal. “… Our prototype is working well, and we’re getting good results. We’re now preparing our first production run for 10 units.”

The company, which launched in 2019, is led by the same team that previously built an eye-measurement system to prepare patients for laser refraction surgery that is now used across the globe. Neal and his team built that previous system through a prior startup, WaveFront Sciences, which Neal launched in 1996.

That company was acquired in 2007 for $20 million, but changed ownership two times, ultimately landing at Johnson & Johnson. Even so, Neal and his team continued to perfect the LASIK measurement device until 2019, when Johnson & Johnson ended development efforts.

That paved the way for Neal and his team to pursue new markets by further developing the base technology into a measurement system for patients whose eyes can’t be treated with LASIK, or with standard contact lenses.

Now, rather than taking snapshot-like images of eyes as the LASIK device does, the new technology takes video-like images to record much more detail about an individual’s eyes to develop custom-made contact lenses.

WaveFront Dynamics, or WaveDyn, started out at the Bioscience Center in Uptown before moving in June 2020 to a 9,800-square-foot facility at the Comanche Business Center in Midtown with laboratory and manufacturing space. The company also closed in May on a $3 million investment from local and out-of-state venture funds that it began raising last summer.

And it launched a clinical trial for its new machine in November in Albuquerque, with nearly two dozen patients now enrolled. It will compile intermediate trial results this summer in preparation for its fall commercial launch, although U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval is not required to go to market, Neal said.

The company won $114,000 in Job Training Incentive Program funding in June to help grow its workforce from 15 now to 21 by year-end.

New Mexico’s startup activity may have been less publicly visible during the pandemic as companies and programs moved online, but local entrepreneurship remains alive and well, and some newly-launched businesses are thriving.

Avisa Diagnostics Senior Vice President for Product Development David Karshmer, left, and president and CEO David Joseph with the company’s measurement device for respiratory infections. (Courtesy of Avisa Pharma)

Among the pandemic standouts is Santa Fe-based Avisa Diagnostics Inc., which went public on the Canadian Securities Exchange in May after reaching an agreement last year with investment group Global Emerging Markets Limited to provide Avisa access to a $41 million line of equity if the company began trading publicly outside the U.S. Avisa went live on the CSE in mid-May through a merger with another publicly traded entity, Fogchain Corp.

Avisa, which launched in 2010, has developed a rapid breath test for bacterial pneumonia and other pulmonary infections based on technology it originally licensed from the University of New Mexico. It previously raised $16 million in private equity, including money from Santa Fe-based Sun Mountain Capital, which manages the New Mexico State Investment Council’s Co-Investment Fund for investments in local startups, giving the state a significant stake in Avisa’s future success.

Over the next three years, Avisa will draw down on GEM’s $41 million line of equity to finance further product development and clinical trials to win U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for its technology.

Another standout – biomedical startup Nature’s Toolbox, or NTxBio – received $5 million in Local Economic Development Act funding last fall to relocate this summer from Santa Fe to a 25,000-square-foot facility in Rio Rancho. The company, which raised $13 million in private equity last year just before the pandemic hit, has created novel technology to rapidly develop new vaccines and drugs based on processes originally licensed from Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The LEDA funding has allowed NTxBio to build out its new Rio Rancho facility into a high-tech research and manufacturing center for new pharmaceuticals. The company, which launched in 2015, expects to hire 116 people over the next decade at an average annual salary of $74,000, representing about $74.5 million in additional payroll over the next 10 years.

Many more startups also had noteworthy achievements during the pandemic, in particular, Parting Stone of Santa Fe and Albuquerque-based BennuBio Inc., Build with Robots, and WaveFront Dynamics Inc.

Build with Robots CEO Chris Ziomek watches Breezy One clean a room June 29. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Build with Robots achieves lucrative niche

Albuquerque startup Build with Robots found its footing in the pandemic with a rectangular-shaped drone on wheels that rapidly provides autonomous disinfection for public facilities.

The company, which launched in 2017 at the FUSE Makerspace at Innovate ABQ Downtown, sells collaborative robots, or “cobots,” which are mechanical arms that use customized programming for a wide variety of mundane industrial or commercial tasks.

But when the pandemic began last year, the startup pivoted to create the new “Breezy One” robot to provide facility managers with an autonomous, mobile disinfection option against COVID. More than a dozen robots, which sell for $100,000 each, are now deployed at five institutions in New Mexico and Texas.

That includes St. Mary’s Catholic School in Albuquerque, the Albuquerque International Sunport, the Daikin Texas Technology Park in Houston, and two other Texas airports – Houston William P. Hobby International and George Bush Intercontinental – both of which signed new contracts in June for a total of six robot deployments, said company CEO Chris Ziomek.

“The pandemic really highlighted the need to add continuous disinfection to janitorial services,” Ziomek told the Journal. “Even after the pandemic, institutions like airports, schools and hotel chains want to keep disinfecting to kill germs, especially during cold and flue season.”

With COVID restrictions on large in-person events now disappearing, the company plans to attend a Las Vegas conference this month for airport executives to demonstrate Breezy One on the exhibition floor.

“We’re particularly concentrating on airports because they’re a good fit for what we do,” Ziomek said. “There’s so much foot traffic constantly going through them.”

The company moved in June to a new 8,600-square-foot office suite at the corner of Commercial Street and East Marquette Downtown, backed by $360,000 in Local Economic Development Act funding. It also received a new investment for an undisclosed amount from the Arrowhead Innovation Fund at New Mexico State University, which makes seed commitments of up to $200,000 for local startups.

The company grew its workforce from just two full-time employees in 2019 to 17 today. It received $573,000 in Job Training Incentive Program grants since last year, and now expects to reach 24 employees by year-end 2021, and 64 by 2024.

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